From prodigy to superstar
The best part of working as a football journalist in South America is the chance to get a sneak preview of future stars and in all the years I have been doing it, the highlight - no doubt about it although the competition is fierce - was catching Lionel Messi on the way up.
It was the South American Under-20 Championships, held in Colombia at the start of 2005, when Argentina called up Messi without knowing a great deal about him.
There were whispers of a prodigy at Barcelona - Messi had played just one friendly in the first team - and Argentina wanted to be sure that if there was something special there, they and not Spain would be the beneficiaries.
So Messi was called back across the Atlantic for the tournament and although the number 10 shirt went to Pablo Barrientos, seen at the time as a great prospect, with Messi handed the number 18, it was quickly obvious which one was the real outstanding talent.
Messi was nothing to look at - very much the pigeon-toed runt of the litter - and he found the competition tough going, which hardly surprising as he was only 17, two years younger than the others, and the gruelling schedule of nine games in three weeks.
But his ability was instantly recognisable. His capacity to run with the ball as if it was part of him left no-one who saw him in any doubt that we were looking at a future little giant of the global game.
The speed with which it happened was as dazzling as one of his dribbles. Within a matter of months he was in the Barcelona team tearing Real Madrid to pieces in the Bernabeu, carrying Argentina to victory in the World Youth Cup, making his senior international debut and bursting onto the radar of English fans with a wonderful display at Chelsea.
And so his story became known. The hormone growth treatment he needed, which the inept management of his local club Newell's Old Boys were unwilling to finance and the family's move to Barcelona, where club legend Carlos Rexach took a quick look and symbolically acquired his signature on a serviette.
In the words of Argentina's footballing philosopher Jorge Valdano, Messi was a perfect synthesis of the street football of his native country and the academy of Barcelona.
A little, left-footed Argentine of breathtaking ability - the comparisons with Diego Maradona were inevitable. Two years ago, long before becoming his coach at national team level, Maradona said he "knew Messi would be one of the greats because he carries the ball looking ahead of him. He doesn't look at the ball. He can watch television and still carry the ball forward. It's abnormal." He could have been describing himself.
But he added that Messi "needed to become a bit more of a leader" - the very role that Maradona had in his playing days. More recently Roberto Abbondanzieri, Argentina's goalkeeper in the last World Cup, said that "Messi can't lead a group of players because he doesn't speak. He's very quiet."
Perhaps Messi is a Maradona for a more individualistic age, immersed in Playstation technology. On the field, though, he is a team player. In fact, in one sense he is a throwback to an earlier great.
"Pele liked to play with a partner - he depended on this," I was once told by Tostao, who filled this role so effectively in the 1970 World Cup. "He created the moves but he needed a partner to help." It was how Pele had grown up at Santos, playing quick one-twos first with Pagao and then with Coutinho.
Messi is similar. Cutting across from the right on his diagonal runs he is most often looking for a partner to show, to receive the ball and give him a swift, accurate and well weighted return. Last year against Manchester United in the Champions League semi-final Messi's problem was that Samuel Eto'o was off form and unable to do it.
Pele's former international team-mate and coach Mario Zagallo once told me that "the calm that other players have in midfield, Pele had in the penalty area. That sums him up."
Messi supplied similar calm deep into extra-time in the semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge. When he received the ball on the left of the Chelsea area there must surely have been a temptation to go for a solo move, a late attempt to live up to his billing on what had been a frustrating night. Instead Messi had the presence of mind to pick out Iniesta on the edge of the box, and the rest is history.
In its own way that pass was as impressive as his most incisive dribbles. It was one of the moments of the season. Barcelona fans hope he can top it on Wednesday night.